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Minecraft and the Middle Ages

It is one of the most popular video games ever created. Moreover, educators are finding ways to use Minecraft as a teaching tool, and one that could be ideal for learning about the Middle Ages.

At first look, it seems odd that Minecraft is so well-loved. The graphics on this game look as if they come from the 1980s, and when you first start the game, your character is dumped into a field or forest with no obvious idea on what you should be doing. However, looks are deceptive, and it is the simplicity of the game that allows users to add in their own creativity.

Created by Swedish programmer Markus “Notch” Persson, Minecraft was first released to the public on May 17 2009. Within less than a year Minecraft had gained over a hundred thousand years, despite the fact that it will still in ‘development stage’. By July 2011 the number of users had grown to ten million, while the game was picking up many awards. As the game got released on different platforms, interest and sales skyrocketed. On a single day – Christmas Eve of 2012, over 453 000 versions of Minecraft were sold. Last year the company that owned the game was sold to Microsoft for $2.5 billion U.S.

Among the fans is my nine-year old son, who got the game about four months ago. “Finding a village and living it it,” is his favourite part of playing. “The second part I like is how zombies and skeletons die!” he adds.

The official handbook explains that “Minecraft is a block-building game with no set rules, where you build anything you can possibly imagine.” There are two ways of playing the game: in Survival Mode, the player enters the game in a wilderness area and then needs to collect items so he can build shelter and find food, all the while trying to avoid various monsters that might appear from time to time – spiders, skeletons and Enderman are among the baddies. Gradually, your shelter becomes a house, and then villages are built. You can go into caves to mine various goods, or build up farms, as civilization gradually grows around you.

If you want to avoid having to fight monsters or worry about where you will sleep each night, the player can select Creative Mode, which allows them to build with unlimited resources. This allows the player to build on a vast scale, and I was surprised how quickly my son was able to learn how to build not only houses, but apartment buildings, bridges, and even landmarks.

A quick look on Youtube will reveal that users have been able to create elaborate constructions, including copies of medieval castles and cathedrals.

The simple architectural elements of the game make Minecraft ideal to be used in teaching about the Middle Ages. One example can be found in the recently published book Minecraft in the Classroom: Ideas, inspiration, and student projects for teachers – one chapter examines how John Miller, a history teacher based in California, made use of the game for Grade 7 classes learning about medieval China. The students used the game to recreate the Tang Dynasty capital of Chang’an.

“They were highly motivated and inspired by the work done by previous classes,” Miller explained. “They challenged themselves to learn more and to be better and more historically accurate builders. They created choices for building materials and debated which blocks to use for greater authenticity.”

Chang’an from John Miller on Vimeo.

He now is planning on enlarging the project so that students “could pass through the gates, travel north on horseback, and encounter the Great Wall. Beyond that be Genghis Khan and the Mongols. As student progress, I’ll create a pathway west that would take them along the Silk Road, with building options to support the study of trade and commerce. They would eventually end in Constantinople and then travel to Florence and learn about Renaissance Italy.”

Other teachers and educational companies have established lesson plans making use of Minecraft. At Wonderful World of Humanities on Minecraftedu.com, detailed resources are offered that allow one to use the game to do things like explore Ancient Lighthouse of Alexandria or live in a medieval castle.

With access to data, the possibilities with this game even grow further. Last year the Danish Geodata Agency used official topographical data to create a 1:1 facsimile of Denmark, including  historical places, buildings, roads and monuments. “You can freely move around in Denmark,” the agency explains, “find your own residential area, to build and tear down as you can in whichever any other Minecraft world.” Meanwhile, the New York Public Library has made it possible for users to turn one of the library’s 20,000 digitized historical maps into a Minecraft world.

There is also potential for Minecraft to be useful in higher levels of education, including as a cost-effective way of creating models of medieval buildings and settlements. This is being done already by Project 1845, a Digital Historian Project that is creating full size virtual reality models from within the game of Minecraft. The began with by developing a model of the Forbidden City inside the Beijing as it would have looked in 1751. They are now planning to create facsimile of Pompeii and an Aztec city.

Of course, Minecraft isn’t just about learning – it is a lot of crazy fun too! Here is my son’s favourite Minecraft Youtube video…

Links

Minecraft.net – the official site

The Amazingly Unlikely Story of How Minecraft Was Born

Parents Minecraft Cheatsheet

Minecraft or Mindcraft? The Value of Online Games in Education

We asked our Twitter fans explain what Minecraft is. Here are the best responses!

minecraft - photo by downloadsource.fr/Flickr

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